Frances West: “Human Centric Technology – Its Impact on the Future of Society” | Talks at Google

Frances West: “Human Centric Technology – Its Impact on the Future of Society” | Talks at Google


[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH: I’m delighted
to welcome you to the podium, Frances West. FRANCES WEST: Good morning. I want to thank Sarah
for that introduction. I also know Sarah from the past. And it’s great to see
a colleague at Google. And this is a very exciting
day for me, personally. Like Sarah said, I spent
quite a few years in IBM. And my last job was IBM’s
Chief Accessibility Officer. But now I have my own
consulting company because my last job
actually was probably the most meaningful
job I ever had at IBM. I came to this topic about
human centric technology impact on future of
society in my last job because I spent my
entire years in IBM in the first two
thirds of my life really learning about
technology, selling technology, and market technology. And it’s not until my last
job in IBM Research, where my organization was
located, that I realized this fundamental
concept of diversity really brings
disruptive innovation. And many of you in this
audience or outside in this tech community know that the topic of
inclusion is a very big topic. But when it comes down
to it, what I realized is that inclusion,
in many cases, at least in today’s
environment, a lot of times it’s cast as more of a
human resource initiative. And a lot of people
talk about inclusion as what we call a
constituency topic. Gender, race or religion. But the way I look
at diversity is that it really brings to
bear the heart of innovation. And let me just give
you a little bit of a history of
myself and give you a little bit of a journey of my
personal growth in this area. And then share with
you why I believe that diversity is the core
to disruptive innovation. I was in the United
States three years with kind of a broken English. I went to a campus interview
in Lexington, Kentucky with a manager by the name
of Frank Friedersdorf. Just based on that name, you can
tell that it’s a German descent name. And at that time I
only had waitressing in a Chinese restaurant
as my experience. I sat down in front of this
Frank Friedersdorf store manager for IBM
and gave him what I thought my Chinese
waitressing job would bring to my understanding
of customer service. Then he asked me the
very crucial question. Do you have a green card
or permanent residency? I’m like, no, I don’t. But I am going to marry what my
brother called a foreign devil. Oh, by the way, that’s why
I have a last name of West. Far from being east. So I said to him, I’m going
to marry a foreign devil. I didn’t say that. I’m going to marry American. I’m going to get my citizenship. And then so he said,
great, Frances. Go get married. Have a nice honeymoon. You have a job with IBM. So this gentleman,
Frank Friedersdorf, was the first person in my
life that really practiced what I call authentic inclusion. In the sense that I
hardly know English. I didn’t have a green card. And yet he believed in me
and what I could become. I didn’t even know what
I could do at that time. Anyway, that’s how I
started IBM career. In the next 20 some years I
helped IBM sell mainframe. For those of you who don’t
know what mainframe is, anybody watch the
movie, “Hidden Figures”? OK, that’s a mainframe. We worked on technology
to put people on the moon. We worked on technology to
build the American Airline Sabre system, which you still use
today for airline reservation. We built a system for Social
Security Administration. So at that time, the
technology was all about putting what we call
the infrastructure system or business system
to be more effective, to be more efficient. And I remember back then, the
key word as a systems engineer. I was trained to think about
on behalf of the customer are three key words. RAS. RAS stands for
reliability, availability, and serviceability. So that was an era
where the computer is all about system optimization. And because of that kind of a
knowledge and also a background I had, I actually
had the opportunity to be the first wave of IBMers
to go to China in the mid 90s. And I will still say my biggest
accomplishment was actually helping the Chinese government
build the China payment system, which is the Federal
Reserve equivalent of Interbank Clearing System. So we’re talking about
big system handling at the beginning of
the check processing and then what we call the
payment infrastructure. So all of these
are very exciting. Learning, professional
growth, and all that. And then I came back
from the China assignment in the early 2000s I
had the opportunity to join IBM Research to head
up this organization called IBM Human Ability and
Accessibility Center. And frankly, I knew very
little about accessibility. How many of you here
know about accessibility? OK. So for those of you who
don’t know accessibility, in the technical world, or
the technology definition, the ultimate objective
of accessibility is about digital inclusion. Meaning, you want to make
sure that the technology solution, or product, or
apps that you put out there, that every human being on
this planet can use it. Not just some, but all. When I say all, I mean
people who are aging, or people who have disabilities. The disability can
be vision-related, could be hearing-related,
could be mobility-related. And most important, it
could be cognitive-related. So part of the job and the
mission of our organization was to make sure that everything
coming out of IBM at the time is as accessible as
possible first and foremost to our employees. Because we want to
eat your own dog food. Once we make sure that our
employees can be productive, actually, earlier
you were saying it was equity engineering. That’s exactly the kind of a
goal that we’re striving for. Which is, there is parity
and equity of everybody who comes to work. And then we learned a
lot about that process. And then was able
to help our customer to become more accessible. So in that job I
thought for sure that I would do it for three
years, which is a track record I had at IBM at the time. Because you want to move on,
you want to get promoted. And even in big company,
I’m sure in Google, you want to try different things
to widen your experience space. Little did I know that that
started out to be a job, then became a career, and
then became a calling. Because for the first
time I realized, of all the glamor I got from
selling big systems to Chinese government and installing
[INAUDIBLE] system with Raytheon, cannot compare to
the satisfaction I got when I worked with a person
with disabilities. And to see how he
or she can perform at work with the same kind of
enthusiasm and productivity. So that is the essence
of what the Accessibility Center was about. And from there, we really
led the innovation. Why? Because our staff
inside IBM Research we actually have people
with disabilities. We have blind engineer. We have deaf scientists
innovating and creating new solutions. Because every
single day they have to deal with issues
or challenges. And in many cases,
their perspective is so creative, is so
out of the box thinking, that it just creates what
we call the disruptive kind of innovation. So that is what I personally
not only saw, but experienced. And after working
in this capacity and then became IBM Chief
of Accessibility Officer, it is around 2016 time frame. And we all know
around 2016, frankly, that was the beginning where
there was a lot of talk about, for example, the Silicon
Valley diversity issues. And, like I said, personally
because of my own journey, I had the opportunity to
experience, one would say. Because I am, at this point
you probably can tell, I am a first generation,
non-English speaking, Chinese, and woman in tech,
and also over age 50. So I kind of check the box
of every inclusion criterion. So just like the State
Farm insurance commercial, we know a few because
we have seen a few. So from my personal
perspective, I feel like there is
a tremendous amount of story needs to be told
to really put the inclusion, not just as an HR a perspective. It’s not just about hiring. But it’s about innovation. And that we are at
that critical point in our history of technology. That companies like Google,
especially Google, you guys are in the forefront of
technology innovation. Really have to think about this
topic very, very seriously. And that you really have
the capacity and also, to a large extent,
your responsibility to make sure that technology
innovation from this point on and going forward has all
human needs and all human wants in consideration. Now why do I say that? So earlier I talked about in my
era of computer or technology we were focusing on
system optimization. We were focused on, like I
said, reliability, availability, and serviceability. But in the past 10,
15 years we all know that the technology has moved
from a system optimization model to a personal optimization
or a personal experience model. We begin to see the
trend, especially the emergence of mobile. When mobile came
onto the scene, I remember before mobile
devices became prevalent, to talk about accessibility
was a very difficult topic. You go up to a 25-year-old
fresh college grad and you say, you need to think about
people who are aging. Somehow it just
doesn’t quite resonate. Because they just want to code. They want to get things out. They want fancy
screen experience. Everything a flash, and
fly in, and all that. They don’t think about
how cognitively confusing it could be for a person
with disabilities or aging. But when the mobile
phone came along, when I started talking
to people I would say, you know what, the
font size matters. All of the sudden
people were like. yeah. When it was too small
font, like size 11 or 12, I cannot see on my cell phone. Color contrast. When you stand in
the sun, if you don’t have enough
color contrast, you won’t be able to read. When you are on the go. Because mobile enables
everybody to be on the go. When you’re at the airport. When you’re listening
on a conference call and there’s a lot of ambient
noise, you cannot hear. Wouldn’t it be nice if
you have captioning? So all of the sudden all of
these fundamental accessibility or human centric
technology requirement becomes universally relevant. Because every one of us
could be temporarily, or what I call
situationally, disabled. So with the technology
coming to what I call the personalized
experience, and Google you guys actually lead some of
the effort with your Android platform. And also your search engine
affects every single person on the planet. I just saw news that
Google is trying to re-enter China market. So that’s another
1.6 billion people. One quarter of the
population on Earth. Oh, by the way, do you know, for
example, I talked about aging. Do you know that China by
2025 will have over 360 million people over age 65. That’s the entire population
of the United States. I was just in China
in March and I was invited to speak as
the only outside speaker to the Chinese companies, like
Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent, on the topic of accessibility. Now, why would China
talk about accessibility? Today in the United States, if
you are progressive thinking companies, like Google,
like IBM, in this case, Microsoft recently
have done a lot of worrying is
accessibility area, then you think about
accessibility not as a compliance topic. But a lot of companies
today, because United States is a litigious
society, and because we have American Disability
Act, lot of technologists their first experience
accessibility is tied to ADA Section
508 compliance. How many of toy know of
the legislation of ADA that apply to digital accessibility? Not many. Let me tell you. This is a trend and
this is a phenomenon that’s not going to go away. So in the United States, if you
are a government procurement company, which I
think Google is. If you want to bid
federal government, this Department of Defense,
or NASA, or Social Security, or Veterans Affairs. If you want to be a
federal contractor, you must prove that your
product is accessible. European Union just
passed a similar law. China has the same procurement
law in the makings. So out of 146 countries in
the world who signed the UN Convention on the
Rights of People with Disabilities, which
was established in 2006, people would tell you this
human rights convention of UN, the importance is equivalent to
the Kyoto Treaty on the Green movement. United States actually led the
entire effort of human rights, as I think we can agree. An ADA, American disability,
actually set the gold standard for digital accessibility. But the fact that we are not
a member of UN convention over time is going to
erode our leadership. Why do I know that? I was very fortunate to
represent the entire IT industry to testify in
front of the US Senate on this particular topic. And it breaks my heart that we
weren’t able to get the United States Congress. We were six votes short
in getting this ratified as other 146 countries. But that said, the digital
inclusion standards and digital inclusion
future at this point is still set by the US company,
like Google, like Facebook, like Apple. And that’s one of the reasons
why this topic is so important. Because from this
point on, we all know that technology is not
just system optimization. It affects every single
person on this planet. And when I say every
single person, I mean it. I don’t mean the 1% or the 10%. I mean the entire
stack, including the base of the pyramid. So in today’s equivalent of what
I said the RAS for mainframe computers, today we
should be talking about, and we are talking
about, for example, computer impact in the
terms of privacy, security. Because this affects
every person. And I will argue that
accessibility should be part of that discussion. So therefore, it’s PSA. Privacy, security,
and accessibility. Because if you believe
that your solution, whether you are a programmer,
you’re an engineer, you’re a designer,
whatever you’re making, if you want that
product, or services, or solution, or apps to be made
available to every human being, and you should have every
human being as your objective, then you have to
think human centric. You have to think, what can
I do on a day to day basis to make this a reality? A lot of people talk
about inclusion. And they will say, this is a
topic the management at the top should set the standards. Set the leadership. And like I said, from
my own experience, inclusion is everybody’s
responsibility, especially when it comes
down to digital inclusion. Because if you go around
and ask people and say, do you believe that
everybody should be equal? Everybody will say, of course. And if you go around and
say, do you want your product to be only available to some
people, but not all people? Everybody would say, no. So principally, everybody agrees
that this is the right thing to do. But when it comes
into practice, people will say, on
average, believe me, I’ve heard all kinds of excuses. Oh, my budget does not
allow me to do this. Or it’s not part of our
department’s priority. So there are all kinds
of potential obstacles put in front of you. But on the other hand,
as an individual, you actually can
make a difference. You can actually be the person. Make a conscious
decision, whether this is authentic inclusion
decision you’re going to make as you go
about your daily business. So this is one of the
principle thinking about authentic inclusion that
I would like to share with you. Again, in this particular
time, all of us have this kind of
responsibility, especially in the
technology area. Because technology is already
pervasive in every person’s life. And can you imagine
if your technology has quote unquote embedded
discriminatory feature or function. Not by design, not by intention,
but by the lack of attention that could happen. So this is really what
we’re talking about. Is that how can a
company like Google and how can the
individual as Googler, you along with other
technology companies together coming to understand the
impact of your behavior and your action on
a day to day basis. And how a company can
enable you all to do this. And the final point
I want to make is that this is a
topic that really goes beyond what we call inclusion. This is a topic about
putting humans first. Putting humans in the
middle of all your thinking, as you design, as you
think about everything. And it’s also not just an idea. But as an institution,
if you are a manager, you actually have the
capability to, what I call, institutionalize the thinking. When I was at IBM, we
actually take this topic and make it very holistic in
that we have design camps. We have development
agile processes. We have communication from our
marketing department involved in this. Because this has to be a
central nucleus of a company’s [INAUDIBLE]. To believe that you
as an individual and also you as a company
in the technology forefront can impact the
society and can also do the equity computing like
we were talking about earlier. So this is really the
foundational of the thinking. And I can share a lot of
the institutional practice examples. But at this point,
with this audience, perhaps I can open
up for questions. And then we can have more
of a dialogue instead of me giving you more of a
practice perspective. So any question
that you may have. Yes. AUDIENCE: So designing a
product for the whole spectrum of populations is really hard. So do you or does IBM have
any framework that could help people make that happen? FRANCES WEST: Well,
we actually have what we call the design
language and thinking. One of the things that I
actually wanted to talk about. It’s very hard to do
accessibility by itself because you separate
that out and it seems to be extra effort. So what we did is that we
worked with our design team and got a lot of the concept
built into the design thinking. Google must have a
standard design process? No? When your product
comes out, do you go through certain kind
of testing and all that? Maybe this is something
you should think about. Remember, in our case, we
have hardware developers, we have software developers,
we have services, so it’s a very
diverse portfolio. But what we did is we created
a functional guidance. Think of it as a checklist. So as any developer goes through
what we call the concept, plan, and design, and implement stage,
we have a checklist for people to use as a guidance. It started out to be
a paper checklist. And then we moved on
to automated checklist. And now, frankly,
we’re using AI. And based on what the
person’s creating, we actually can have
AI to give prompters. And by the way, all these
are based on standards. Earlier I talked
about accessibility. This is another thing. Accessibility is not a
liberal, left wing philosophy. In the digital
inclusion space, this is actually a highly disciplined
and regimented space in that we have standards called WCAG 2.0. Or it stands for Web
Accessibility Guidelines. Which came out of a W3C, a
world wide web standards group. So these are published
standards that, remember I mentioned 146 countries? Every country is in the
process adopting that standard. Just like today in
the teleco world, everybody’s moving
to 5G, for example. There is a certain sense
of a technology standard. So between world wide
web, between ITU, between these global
ISO standards, there are accessibility
standards, just like privacy standards
and the security standards that are coming together. So again, Google as a leader
in technology, you all actually have the capability
to be a leader in terms of, for example, maybe using
your artificial intelligence capability to integrate all
these elements into maybe an AI-based tool to lessen
the burden of developers. Does that make sense? So that’s, to some
degree, also what I mean by authentic
inclusion framework. That is, inclusion
should not just be a buzz word, or a
statement, or an idea. You can and you should
have organization construct such as design criteria, as
such as development standards, such as testing protocols. Another thing that I don’t know
whether Google does or not. But if you don’t, I
highly recommend it. Is that you actually have
people with, for example, cognitive challenge or
vision challenge as part of your testing team. Nothing like a real user
that will humble you and also give you potentially
out of the box thinking. And also a solution. Like I mentioned, I
was in China in March. China actually just started
the accessibility journey less than 10 years ago. So at that time, I actually
helped translate the word accessibility into Chinese
because Chinese actually is my native language. So 10 years ago, you’re looking
at a country that did not even have the word accessibility. Now when I went
back in March, it was a forum sharing
best practices from Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba. And the most impressive,
Ant Financial. Anybody heard of Ant Financial? Ant Financial is
part of Alibaba. Everybody know Alibaba? OK. So Ant Financial, think of
it as everybody know Alipay. Alipay was the
equivalent to Apple Pay. So Alibaba has created this
entire e-commerce platform with a payment system. And Ant Financial is their
mobile fintech platform. So if you Google
Ant Financial, they are in the press every day. Some people would be saying
fintech financial technologies going through huge,
huge transformation. A lot of banks are actually
worried about their existence 10 years from now. Because you got
all the disruptors. New type of fintech
companies coming in. So Ant Financial, when they
announced their mobile app, it was inaccessible. So somebody complained because
the social media network is very, very strong in China
as well because everybody has a mobile phone. So what happened
was it went viral. So what did Ant Financial do? They immediately hired a team
of persons with disabilities. Blindness, aging, and all that. And made them a permanent
part of their design team and also their testing team. Now again, in China they
don’t have any laws. They don’t have ADA. They don’t they don’t
have anything to say, you must do this. China right now is
so consumer-driven, it’s unbelievable. Talk about focus on
customer experience. So the best practice that
was shared by Ant Financial is the entire, what we
call, the customer journey. End to end. And how they’re embedding
user experience, in this case particularly
aging, people with disability, into their entire process. And I remember sitting on stage. Because remember, I was the only
outside quote unquote expert. And when I was listening to
them, I’m like, oh my god. Not only do they get
it, they are actually surpassing, frankly, a lot of
the companies doing it here in the United States. So the reason I’m
sharing this with you is because this is not your
father’s accessibility topic anymore. This is not about just making
compliance, making ADA, so Google can be a, let’s say,
federal government contractor. That’s meeting minimum. I’m here to talk to you about
if you believe that everybody is going to use technology,
like mobile phone, as part of their living,
as part of their working, as part of their playing,
it’s every single activity that human does is going
to involve technology. Then you must think
of accessibility as part of that experience. Because ultimately,
accessibility is about extreme
personalization. It’s not that that
person’s disabled. It’s just my eyesight
is not that good, especially when I’m driving. You’re not supposed
to look at your phone, but you still have emails
and things coming in. At that point, I would
like my screen voiceover to come on and just talk to me. So think of it as a
personal preference. Again, put the human
first thinking cap on. And don’t think
of this as meeting some minimum compliance. But think about, how can I
make my product, my services, how can I make the
company, Google, to be a human first
company that I think about the human experience,
and then I build things around that human experience? I build it for the
human experience. And that is, to me, a
true leader’s action. And if you do so, then
all the other things, including inclusion, will come
about naturally, organically. Then you are not going out to
hire a woman because you’re supposed to hire a woman. You’re not out
hiring a blind person because you’re supposed to
hire person with disability, and so on, and so forth. Because what you
believe fundamentally then is that technology
is here to stay. Not only here to stay. Technology is going
to be an integral part of every human existence. We didn’t talk about AI,
artificial intelligence, and all that. But if you start to carry
on, do extrapolation where the technology
is going, it’s going to be in everything we
do and everything we think. I had the opportunity
to be at the conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil
with Vint Cerf, your own. Vin and I were talking
about jobs of the future. He’s certainly man
invented the internet. So he talked about how he views. You all know Vint’s
vision now is this people-centered internet. So internet, from
his perspective, has gone away from the original
purpose of serving people too. So he’s having this
PCI, people centered internet, kind of vision. And I’m coming in from my kind
of a pragmatic operational experience in managing IBM’s
accessibility organization and seeing how, by
thinking human first and by people having
diversity on my team, and also throughout the IBM
design team, IBM development team, how that actually
differentiated us as a company in terms of the
products and services. And most importantly, a culture. I would say the
last point I want to make is that one of the
things when I was on that day was sharing is that everybody
in the technology business is about innovation. We all know that you don’t
have innovation you die. It’s just facts of life. So how do you make sure you have
continuous innovation that’s transformative,
that’s disruptive. And if you look at a
history of a company. Right now IBM I think
is the only company to have over 100 years
of reinventing itself. Then you peel back you say,
what is the secret sauce? What is the thing that’s making
this company at least so far sustained waves and
waves of innovation. Fundamentally it’s this
belief in diversity. So Google, you are in the tech
world the undisputed leader. And so therefore, as a
company, actually Google, along with Microsoft and Apple,
all the technology company, we owe it to the world,
frankly, to not only promote, but deliver some of
the fundamental promise of technology. Which is, technology is
supposed to equalize access. Technology is supposed
to create a democracy. And technology should
have a purpose. And that’s what we all have as
an opportunity in front of us. And that’s why
when Sarah told me that there’s an opportunity
to speak at Google, I jumped at it right away. Because I sincerely
believe that, in this particular
time in our history, if you look around, whether
the political system, economic system,
societal system, everything seems
to be in upheaval. And we technologists
have a responsibility. Use what we know on a day to
day basis to better this world. And one of the ways
to better the world is to make sure
that we are not just doing technology for
technology’s sake, but always keep humans first
as part of your thinking. So with that, we still
have about 10 minutes. We still can take
one or two questions. That we can do to karaoke way. AUDIENCE: How do you
think about technologies that are, by their very
nature, less accessible? So I’m thinking of
things like AR and VR, which is very visual. Or voice assistance,
which obviously wouldn’t work very well for
people with hearing impairment. Things like that. FRANCES WEST: I personally
think that there will be a convergence of
different technologies coming together, a multimodal
kind of experience. And it’s not to say for
a specific function. Let’s say it’s VR. It’s completely visual. But even that, you
can use, for example, machine learning or artificial
intelligence to interpret the scene for the
person who cannot see. So, for example, one of the
biggest pieces of work Disney is working on. It used to be that when you go
see a movie, if you are blind, obviously you cannot see. So they have audio
description of the scene. So if you’ve done enough of
audio description of scenery, one can imagine that
can be captured. You can digitize that. And then you begin to develop
a repository in there. So that even as you
develop the virtual reality games, experience, and whatever,
you can still have voiceover. So you can use the technology’s
efficiency and cost effectiveness factor
to begin to integrate multiple technologies together. So in the beginning, it
could be a single thread. But I think if you
design it thinking that you want to be
pervasively accessible, then you may start
engaging other technology to complement that. Does that make sense? SARAH: OK. I want to thank Frances for this
very insightful and inspiring presentation.

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